20 years of Academic Development

Credit: Anna Boyle/Art Editor Credit: Anna Boyle/Art Editor

Academic Development started in the summer of 1997 and consisted of only one full time employee and one graduate student. Today, it reaches thousands of students each year, and employs more than 200 students, in addition to the five full-time employees that keep Academic Development running. In honor of Academic Development’s 20th anniversary, The Tartan sat down with four of its full time employees in order to discuss how Academic Development has changed, the services that they provide the student body, and where they think Academic Development will grow from here.

These four employees were the director of Academic Development Linda Hooper, who was the founding full time employee, John Lanyon, the Peer Tutor Program Coordinator, Jessica Owens, the Supplemental Instruction (SI) and EXCEL Program Coordinator, and Mike Poljak, the Academic Coaching Program Coordinator. The fifth and final full time employee was Administrative Assistant Donora Craighead.

Academic Development was originally located in the Student Center, a navy building that was located where the Gates Hillman Complex currently stands. Director Linda Hooper described it as “basically a long trailer.” She, with a graduate student acting as her assistant, worked out of a mail room while all other tutoring happened in the room next to them. “I’d be working with a student, and they’d be crying about something, we would be dealing with a sensitive subject, and all these students would be coming to get their mail,” said Hooper of the situation.

Academic Development is currently located in Cyert Hall, a far cry from their original home in the Student Center, with offices for the Program Directors and rooms for peer tutors and academic coaches to meet with the students they are helping out. And this change in space has come with a drastic increase in the services Academic Development offers. “Because we have adapted to student need, every single year we have had growth in all of our programs almost across the board,” Hooper said.

This growth can be seen very starkly in the statistics of the programs. Walk-in tutoring supported 15 subjects in two locations, Donner House and Mudge House, in 2003. This past year, 33 subjects had walk-in tutoring sessions in seven locations. EXCEL groups supported 27 courses last year, compared to 11 courses in the 2007-2008 academic year. Poljak was hired two and a half years ago as the first full time employee in his position as Academic Coaching Program Director, and last year 77 percent of all students enrolled in SI supported courses attended SI sessions, according to the annual report.

Poljak said he is often asked why there is such a clear enthusiasm for Academic Development’s services at Carnegie Mellon, given that the students are ones who presumably are capable and intelligent. He suggests that Academic Development’s growth stems from the fact that students are so academically successful, “Your intelligence is making you say I need to gobble up all that support... and it’s our job to make sure it’s readily available.”

The staff of Academic Development gives a lot of credit to their more than 200 student employees as well. Owens, SI and EXCEL Program Coordinator, found that the student employees are what “keep [her] going.” She highlighted that student employees “maintain their own academics, and they work really really hard to help the people around them. They have that unique experience where they can actually share that experience with students and interpret things in a way that is meaningful, really connecting with the student’s questions.”

Lanyon, Peer Tutor Program Coordinator, stressed that not only do student employees benefit from working with Academic Development, the full time employees benefit from working with the student employees and use their input to shape the programs. He states that when people frequently ask him if he is tired of his job after the sixteen years he has spent working here,“I have to laugh when I hear that question because the answer is an emphatic no... what other job can you have where you can interact with so many different people coming from so many different cultural backgrounds, so many different educational backgrounds, so many socio-economic backgrounds?”

The student employees juggle heavy workloads, balancing classwork and their Academic Development jobs, but the full-time employees more than match that work ethic and enthusiasm for learning. Hooper said of her program coordinators, “These three people work harder than anyone you have seen on this campus.” Poljak quipped that sometimes he thinks that there are “two Donoras” because of the massive amount of work Administrative Assistant Donora Craighead handles each week.

The Tartan asked the four employees what their aspirations for the next 20 years of Academic Development are. Hooper stated that her goal for the expansion of Academic Development would be to hire more personnel to expand on the work that the current staff is completing. Owens lit up at the prompt, confiding that her aspiration is that Academic Development owns its place as the program that teaches students how to learn. Poljak talked about expanding the services they offer to graduate students. John Lanyon said that, given that they had the resources to do so, he would like it if they would “strategically expand our programs into other colleges and majors” as a lot of the tutoring is currently aimed at the math and science courses that have higher drop rates.

Though 20 is undoubtedly a significant anniversary for any group on campus, and surely signals that Academic Development is here to stay, they found themselves unable to celebrate so far this year. Though they had planned to do something to commemorate this occasion at the beginning of the year, Hooper explained, “We were too busy!”